Apple’s newest piece of retail art was revealed to shoppers in Union Square of San Francisco this month. As is Apple’s modus operandi these days they’re making sure to use clean energy to power the building. From the Apple press release, “The store is powered by 100 percent renewable energy, including power produced by photovoltaic panels integrated into the building’s roof.” BuildZoom – sees a 50kW Solar Electric system for an astounding $800,000! What exactly did Apple build?

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That this system is being built is not a surprise. The City of San Francisco requires solar power on all all new construction under ten stories. Additionally, Apple is very active in expressing its desire to be environmentally sound. The new Apple Campus and its Spaceship Office is going to be partially powered by a monstrous 5MW solar power system. And of course, Tim Cook famously told investors questioning Apple’s renewable energy investments, “If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock.”

So, what exactly did Apple build? We don’t know yet – I’ve sent out emails to Apple’s PR people and the construction company. Stay tuned. We do know that the average price to install a 50,000W commercial solar system is around $150,000 ($3.00/W). Apple’s permits describe an $800,000 ($16.00/W) solar system – obviously something here is different from what we’re used to. While it would be great for Apple to install some space age type technology using nanotubes, perovskites, thermophotovoltaics, multi-junction cells or giant glass spheres – it’s more likely that the upper parts of the metal structures that are actually part of the broader building, and used for holding pipes, conduit, attaching building materials to and supporting weight, are also being included.

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The first clue we get is from the original Press Release is when Apple says the, “photovoltaic panels (are) integrated into the building’s roof.” One benefit of building solar at the time of construction is that installation costs are generally lower as design and labor costs are made more efficient – that logic is not applicable here though. Solar power that is built into the actual structure of the building, as part of the building design, is called Building Integrated Solar Photovolatic (BIPV).

Combining the press release language with a few images found around the web compounds the idea that the $800,000 includes some of the structural metal framing in addition to standard solar module hardware. Starting in the first image through the fourth below we see construction progressing around the metal frame. The roof of the structure has rectangle subsections (shaped much like 6′ x 3′ solar modules) that are neatly and orderly installed. In theory, these solar modules – if properly engineered – can be used to form the actual outside layer of the building. Apple likes glass buildings and, overly simplified, solar modules are panes of glass with electronics attached.

Whatever Apple built, it is producing clean energy and we need as much of that as we can get.

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